Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’


Image by dreamexplorer via Flickr

I love looking at the seed catalogs that fill my mailbox this time of year.  I especially enjoy the ones that offer unusual plants and varieties suited to particular conditions and locales, and heirloom seeds.   Heirloom varieties of vegetables are often the tastiest and most beautiful and interesting to look at.  They are a delight for small home gardeners and lovers of fresh produce.

Take tomatoes, for example.   Large-scale growers must depend on only a few varieties that have been hybridized to be able to withstand rough handling, long storage and long journeys across country.  Texture, and especially taste, are secondary.

Monoculture is the practice of growing huge quantities of a single crop or single species.  While this allows standardization and may lead to larger crops with minimal labor, it also causes problems.  If a disease strikes to which that species has no resistance, the entire crop can be lost.  Monoculture can also negatively impact the environment.  Polyculture is the alternative.  It involves techniques such as companion planting and–get this–the use of beneficial weeds.  Thank goodness there are people who are committed to preserving the genetic diversity of plants and animals, too.

heirlooms from baker creek

Image by tofutti break via Flickr

When it comes to planting and cultivating communities of faith, we can take some lessons from farmers and gardeners.

  • Test the soil.  Take local conditions into account and plan accordingly.  Develop a particular garden plan (new church model) for particular people in a particular context.  Consider the heirloom varieties, such as house churches and monastic communities.
  • Denominations should not rely on monoculture.  There are many possible models for communities of faith.  While it may appear that reproducing a particular model will lead to success, in the long run we may be able to produce a bigger, healthier, livelier crop (i.e. draw more people towards Jesus) if we practice polyculture.
  • Remember that there are lots of different methods for feeding and watering the plants.  Water cannons aren’t the only form of irrigation.  In some situations the most efficient and effective method is to bury a drip hose near the roots and administer a slow, steady drip.

And don’t forget what the Lord of the Harvest said:  Some seeds won’t produce, but others will–thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

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Want to hear a word of hope for the New Year?  Check out this hope-filled article from the December 2011 issue of Presbyterians Today about ministry with young adults.  It’s titled “If This Is Church, Bring It On.”

Author Mark Ray notes, “In many ways, young adults are looking for the same things as previous generations, including Spirit-filled worship, authentic community and meaningful service.”

No, it is not crucial to have a guitar and drums in your worship service.  What is needed is to be genuine and authentic and to do what you do well.   He quotes Roger Dermody, Executive Director for Mission of the PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council: “Whether worship is traditional or contemporary, the goal is to avoid having it become “monotone or rote,” he says. “We want to infuse our rich traditions and forms of worship with meaning to touch the hearts and minds of the younger generation.”

Younger generations are looking for genuine, deep relationships, including relationships that cross generational lines.  In small congregations, this often comes naturally.  The article speaks of congregations doing this intentionally.  Call it the “Cheers factor.”  They want to be where “everybody knows your name.”

As for service, Ray advises finding out what ministries young people are passionate about and accompanying them in service.  What’s more, young people are looking for encouraging mentors.  Again, this is intergenerational.

Warm, Spirit-filled worship.  Deep caring relationships across generations.  Service that meets critical needs.  Small churches can do all this.  Mine does, and I’m so grateful.

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St Johns Church, Tismans Common. A tiny church...

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a letter to the editor that I sent to the Presbyterian Outlook in response to another letter.  You can read the original that sparked my interest here.  I really believe that being a small congregation can be a strategic advantage.  The small church is one of God’s strategies for reaching people.

I greatly appreciated O. Benjamin Sparks’ letter to the editor in the August 8 issue of the Outlook, as well as the Pentecost 2011 letter from the Committee on Theological Education that inspired it.  Twenty-one years into a small church pastorate, I still find it exciting, challenging and rewarding.

The facility-rich, money-rich, resource-rich, staff-rich and program-rich model is not the only faithful way to “do church.”  It is not the only good structure for the work of drawing people into the embrace of Jesus Christ.  It is not even the appropriate model for every context, culture, or population group.  What if we stopped seeing small size as a problem or a failure and viewed it instead as an opportunity and even a strategic advantage?  What if we saw small, strong congregations as one of God’s strategies for reaching people?  At the moment, the PC(USA) is rich in small congregations, and just maybe God wants it that way.

Many people will not be reached through models of church that require affluence.  What is required is a model that is rich in faith, rich in prayer, rich in relationships, and rich in simplicity, creativity, and flexibility.  It is a blessing not to have large facilities and too many things that must be maintained.  Trusting God, a small church can move quickly to meet people on a personal level.

Yes, some small congregations are unhealthy and may need to die by closure, but larger congregations can also be unhealthy.  Yes, many small churches need transformation, but doesn’t every church need God to transform it?  Isn’t every congregation called to be reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit?  And this, too, is certain: whatever its size, every congregation is called to lay down its life, take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Initiatives such as “For Such a Time as This,” which pairs small congregations with recent seminary graduates, are a step in the right direction.  Imagine what could happen if working through small, strong congregations became one of the PC(USA)’s respected and cherished strategies for reaching people in the name of Jesus.  Imagine the greater diversity of people we could reach out to and the greater number of communities the PC(USA) could be active in.  Imagine if we developed creative ways to support the faithful indigenous leadership that is in the small churches we already have.  Simply inviting small church folk to come to a leadership event here and there is not enough.  This is going to require personal, onsite attention in the small church’s home territory, and the best mentors will come from small churches. And imagine what could happen if we started new congregations that will deliberately be small, whose goals may well NOT include owning a building or accumulating wealth.  Think of the flexibility they would have in responding to God’s call to mission!

If the PC(USA) hopes to share the good news of Jesus, and if we want to deploy our small congregations in that effort, then we must fulfill our ordination vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. As the COTE letter notes, this includes making imaginative use of our money across the church.  And it includes loving our small congregations.

Small churches are a great place to learn to be a pastor, and a great place to learn to be a Christian.  Remember that they are also a great place to meet Jesus in the first place.



Photo by Andy Potter, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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Sunset over the Sea of Galilee

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After a Bible study about one of Jesus’ sea crossings, one of our members asked for a sermon about “the other side.”  This is what I came up with for our congregation’s homecoming service on September 25.  This sermon focuses on the call to go.  Something needing ongoing prayerful thought and creativity: what are some alternate routes to reach the other side?

A Rough Ride to the Other Side
A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 8:23-9:1 and Romans 10: 12-15

When Jesus insisted that his disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, they didn’t put up any argument.  They knew where he was coming from.  They knew the need that waited on the other side.  They didn’t know exactly what they would find, but it would be some form of what they had seen already: perhaps another hungry crowd like the one they had just left.  Definitely they would see lots of sick people, and they might even see a really fearful situation like what they had seen in Gerasa: demon-possessed people living in the place of the dead—the cemetery.

The disciples also didn’t argue about setting out because Jesus had sent them out before with a commission.  In Matthew 10 he told them:
• Go and proclaim the good news
• Cure the sick
• Raise the dead
• Cleanse the lepers
• Cast out demons.

They could hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, the same urgency that Paul expressed later in this way: How can people call on Jesus if they haven’t put their trust in him?  And how can they put their trust in him if they haven’t heard of him?  And how can they hear unless somebody goes and tells them?

No, the disciples didn’t put up an argument.

But deep in the night, far from the shore, I am sure they wished they had.  Because of the topography at the Sea of Galilee, windstorms can quickly come up with little or no warning.  It happens because the Sea itself is down in a bottom, 700 feet below sea level, while the hills around the sea soar up to 1200 feet above sea level.  Air cools off quickly at the top and rushes down to take the place of warmer air rising up off the sea.  The disciples didn’t have a barometer to detect the subtle changes in air pressure that might have warned them that a storm was forming.

They were hit without warning, and this was a bad one.  Even the most seasoned sailors among them didn’t have the stomach for this churning sea.  In the Greek Matthew says that the waves tortured the boat.

And being just as human as anyone else, the disciples probably “lost it” as they struggled to hang on.  I can imagine them shouting at each other over the noise of the storm.  We should have rested in port when the crowd dispersed!  Andrew, James and John, you’re the professionals in this bunch.  How come you didn’t notice that the wind was changing?  Peter, how come you didn’t speak up?  I knew I didn’t like the looks of those clouds I saw on the horizon!  But the wind carried their voices away. (more…)

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Image by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

Summer Grove United Methodist Church recently posted a video inviting people to give church a try–or give it another try.  It says what I’d like to say about my home church.  Take a look and share it around!


Click here!

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There are times when a congregation needs to make a major move.  This year my home congregation, the Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, is celebrating the centennial of a major move.  When the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name.  By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the church members had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building.  It would still be years before cars made travel easier.  And since the people of the Kirk still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, they had a problem. 

What did they do?  The congregation decided to move the building closer to where they actually lived.  In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work.  They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it.  With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact.  The congregation more than survived.  Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna.  As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.

When it comes to the church and our congregations in 2011, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now.  People who need the embrace of Jesus have moved out of range of the church, so some kind of move is necessary.  It is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat.  The parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25 reminds us to keep oil in our lamps in order to be ready when the Lord comes and calls.  Maybe we had better keep our wagon wheels greased and ready to roll, too.

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Jesus' calling card

Image by jayfreshuk via Flickr

Thank heavens there’s no aptitude test you have to pass before you can follow Jesus.  You simply start where you are and invite others to do the same.  Here’s a sermon for Epiphany 3A.

A Sermon on John 1:29-51
With Allusions to Isaiah 42:1-4 and Acts 17:16-34

Time is going by so quickly that it’s not going to be long before some more of our youth will be going off to college.  The admissions process will include taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test—the SAT–and Achievement Tests, submitting transcripts of their grades and recommendations from their teachers, and filling out applications with questions like the following: “Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you,” and “Why this college?”  Do this in less than one page.

Getting into the college of one’s choice is often a great concern.  “Are my grades good enough?” students wonder.  Some take special classes to help them do better on the SAT, and it is not unusual for people to retake the SAT several times hoping to improve their score.

Imagine if Jesus had given his prospective students an entrance exam.  Today’s gospel lesson might read like this: Andrew, what does baptism mean?  Peter, explain the term, “Lamb of God.”  Philip and Nathanael, demonstrate your knowledge of Scripture—the law, the prophets and the writings.  Bring me references from John the Baptist, the leader of your local synagogue or other teacher.  Tell me what you can offer this company of disciples.  I want evidence of loyalty and strength.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order has a section that describes what mature Christian discipleship looks like.  It’s quite a long list and here is some of what it includes: proclaiming good news, taking part in the common life and worship of the church, praying and studying scripture, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom and human fulfillment.  That’s just some of the list.

Imagine if a congregation turned that into an entrance exam that you have to ace before you can profess your faith, become a disciple, and join the church!  Who could get in?  Who could ace such a test even after many years of working at it? (more…)

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